The Last Line Of Democracy

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GLOBAL TRADE UNIONISM[image, unknown] In the firing line

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The last line of democracy
When repressive governments attack democratic structures and human rights, independent trade unions find themselves in the last line of defence. We report from two countries where being a trade unionist can be a dangerous occupation.
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Peter Chapman explains why rural trade unions
are taking to the hills and joining the armed
struggle to overthrow the government.

RODOLFO VIERA was few people’s idea of a revolutionary hero. Head of the largest, though tamest, of El Salvador’s peasant unions, the Uni6n Comunal Salvadorena (UCS), his name had been linked with corrupt use of the union’s funds. Like the organisation itself, Viera was widely viewed as little more than an adjunct of the government and a tool of the US embassy.

The UCS, in fact, was a creation of the American Institute for Free Labour Development (AIFLD) in 1968. With the help of the Israeli union organisation. Histadrut, it poured in more than $1.5 million to set up a network of peasant cooperatives.

Rural unions had been illegal in El Salvador since the bloody suppression by the authorities of a peasants revolt in 1932. But in the wake of Fidel Castro’s victory in Cuba, the winds of change blowing down from Washington towards its Latin American backyard in the 1960s were pushing for the establishment of institutions responsive to the need for reforms, albeit led by moderates’ - Viera was one such ‘moderate’ leader, inheriting the top position in the UCS from. early 1978. When, two years later, the Christian Democrats in the Salvadorean government introduced the US-backed agrarian reform programme, the 100,000 member UCS was chosen as its major beneficiary. Viera, understandably, was a staunch supporter of the plan

The reform had been mapped out in three phases. The largest landholdings, mainly in cotton growing areas, were to be expropriated first, to be followed by the smaller coffee estates and finally land would be turned over to small peasant producers under the so-called ‘land to the tiller programme’. The reform aimed to make a significantdent in the fortunes of El Salvador’s landed oligarchy, the 14 Families’, who had dominated the economy for the best part of a century.

The military, however, used the pretence of the reform to move into rural areas and wipe out anyone it regarded as supporters of the militant left-wing peasant movement which had been on the rise since the late 1960s. And it soon became clear that elements of the military and associated death squads were backing the cause of the ~14 Familie& to the hilt and were intent, too, on hitting the UCS.

On 30 May 1980, eight UCS leaders were murdered by death squads near El Salvador’s second city of Santa Ana. In November, a bomb, attributed to the extreme right, exploded outside the agrarian reform’s headquarters in San Salvador, injuring 17 people. Viera joined other leading figures in the UCS in attacking the government’s failure to provide protection against right-wing attack.

Two months later, just after New Year, Viera himself was gunned down. Two leading American AIFLD advisers died with him as they sat in the coffee shop of San Salvador’s Sheraton hotel A leading figure in the landed oligarchy, a member of the Sol Meza family, was later arrested, but no charges were allowed to stick.

According to the UCS, more than 80 of its members have now been murdered. About 5,000 others have been evicted by their landlords for applying for ownership rights under the land reform programme. As a result of pressure by the oligarchy, only part of the agrarian reform has been carried out, and the second stage (the coffee estates) apparently abandoned.

The failure of the ‘moderate’ approach of Viera and the UCS was entirely predictable. Their main mistake was to take the regime’s ‘reform’ plans at face value. The road to reform in El Salvador was already littered with the bodies of those who had dared to tread it. Many others, convinced of the futility of reform, had opted for the revolutionary path.

The Christian Federation of Salvadorean Peasants, known usually by its Spanish acronym, FECCAS, is a typical case. Set up by rural priests and members of the Christian Democrat party in the late l960s. it was originally not so much a union as a communal self-help organisation. A little over ten years later, however, its 23,000 members were a key part of El Salvador’s revolutionary movement and closely linked with one of the country’s main guerrilla groups.

The transformation is understandable, considering the shock waves of political violence set off when the union made certain basic economic demands. In October 1977, FECCAS presented a demand to the government for a rise in pay to $4.40 a day for agricultural workers. That was for dawn to-dusk working on the harvests, where the highest wage earner (on the coffee farms) was getting only $3.20 a day, and the lowest (on the sugar estates) $2.00.

Government officials remained deaf to FECCAS’s demands, so the organisation followed them up with an occupation of the Ministry of Labour in San Salvador. The government’s response, with the landed oligarchy demanding a crackdown, was to pass a repressive public order law and declare a state of emergency.

The following March, several FECCAS leaders were seized near the capital by government paramilitaries and one was found decapitated next day. The guerrillas then entered the scene, executing five government paramilitaries in retaliation. Armed clashes, after the paramilitaries had then driven 2,000 villagers out of their homes in FECCAS areas, left 15 dead When again FECCAS brought the issue on to the streets of San Salvador, five of its members were shot dead by the authorities in demonstrations.

The Salvadorean teachers union, ANDES, is a further case in point It was established in 1964 to campaign for pension rights, after the government had suddenly lengthened the required term of service for an employee to qualify for a pension from 30 to 40 years. Over the following years, action by ANDES won important concessions on pensions as well as other benefits such as salary rises, sick pay and maternity leave.

In the process, however, government reaction forced ANDES to radicalise its approach and, like FECCAS, seek the aid of those prepared to take up arms.

The reason? Some 207 teachers have been murdered by the military’s death squads in the last four years.

In the face of repression by El Salvador’s brutal regime any workers’ or peasants union defining its aims in purely economic terms is clearly out of touch with reality. Asking for better wages and working conditions amounts to a political challenge to the regime’s most fervent supporters, who demand retaliatory action.

Even ‘moderate’ trade union leaders, like Rudolfo Viera, have discovered to their cost that they are playing a deadly game in which the dice is loaded heavily against them. Seeking only ‘moderate’ political and economic change, they are not alive today to tell their stories. InEl Salvador and in neighbouring Guatemala, the struggle of trade unions for improved wages, working conditions and political liberties leads workers and peasants directly into the armed struggle of the guerrilla movement.

The real achievement of militant Salvadorian trade unions has been to make ordinary people aware of their potential power. The final word goes to an unnamed FECCAS member, speaking to the London Guardian’s correspondent in the Salvadorian countryside: ‘If we are poor it’s because we work from six in the morning until six at night to make the land-owners rich. The peasants and the workers create the wealth of this land The government doesn’t want us to know that and that’ s why ifs trying to destroy our union organisation’

Peter Chapman is a freelance journalist based in London.

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Paul Rees reports how Upper Volta's unions,
the only organised form of democratic resistance
to the military regime, are struggling for survival.

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Soumane Touré

SOUMANE TOURE used to be a civil servant working in a small office in the national capital, Ougadougou. He lived with his wife, their three children and a couple of relatives in a small house in one of the cramped, older quarters of the city. In his mid-thirties, he was qualified by education and experience for a powerful job in a government ministry. Today, Soumane Touré is on the run, hunted furiously by Upper Volta’s military government.

The reason? Somane Touré was active in the Confederation Syndical Voltaique (CSV), formerly the largest of the country’s four trade unions but now banned At first glance the 25,000 members of Upper Volta’s trade unions hardly seem likely to be politically militant They consist mostly of civil servants, teachers, bank clerks, health workers and technicians. Belonging to the elite 10 percent of the population living in towns and cities, they represent a privileged section of Voltaic society — a fact which the government has not been slow to exploit.

Upper Volta’s unions do struggle hard to protect the wages and working conditions of their members — that is the main function of any independent trade union Yet their mili tant response to a succession of corrupt and authoritarian regimes, is evidence of their commitment to fundamental principles of social justice and democracy. Strikes led by unions in 1966 and 1980 precipitated the downfall of two highly unpopular and corrupt governments and in 1975 prevented President Lamizana from imposing a one party state. Yet, ironically, these actions simply opened the door for the military to walk into a power vacuum each time.

Soumane Touré’s union, the CSV, has led struggles by teachers unions for a more appropriate education system and by health workers for a much more widely accessible primary health care system. These struggles have broken through the sectional barriers which the government has been striving to maintain.

In his first speech after seizing power tn November 1980, the New President of the Republic, Colonel Saye Zerbo, made some inspiring statements: ‘Our country,’ he said, ‘has just gone through a period of social upheaval: an economic and social crisis and a crisis of democracy, brought about by the carelessness of a worn-out power. Now is the time to build real democracy.

But the new President’s attempts to build ‘democracy’ have included the banning of all political parties and a series of vicious attacks on the trade union movement Newly proclaimed laws effectively prohibit strike action and the CSV has been banned. Soumane Touré incurred the governmenf s wrath by denouncing these measures and resigning from a commission established to investigate the excesses of the previous regime of President Lamizana.

The future of such democracy as still exists in Upper Volta hangs in the balance. With political parties suppressed, the trade union movement is the only organised democratic force left in the country. Yet to break the power of corrupt, authoritarian military governments, the unions must broaden their power base to include the 5½ million unorganised, unpoliticised Voltaic living in rural areas. The enormous social and economic gulf between the salaried worker and the peasant farmer weakens the people’s struggle for social justice and democracy. Only when the rural masses of Upper Volta begin to present their own demands alongside their salaried brothers and sisters, can a really solid framework for a democratic society can be established.

But the short term future for Upper Volta’s trade unions looks bleak. Soumane Touré, denouncing the Lamizana regime in 1980, said: ‘Real democracy will not happen here so long as a minority continues to exploit the majority, so long as we do not have social and economic democracy.’ Today, his words seebs hauntingly prophetic.

Paul Rees is a freelance writer working in West Africa.

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New Internationalist issue 117 magazine cover This article is from the November 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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